Sunday, 11 March 2018

Dancing Bears by Witold Szablowski

Dancing Bears by Witold Szablowski
First published in Polish in Poland as Tańczące niedźwiedzie in 2014. English language translation by Antonia Lloyd Jones published in the UK by Text Publishing in February 2018.

One of my 2018 Take Control of Your TBR Pile Challenge reads and featured in WorldReads: Poland

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository

I used to bottle-feed my father’s two bears. When my son was born, they were kept together. There were plenty of times when I got it wrong—the baby drank from the bear’s bottle, and the bear from his. So when they fired me from the collective farm, I knew one thing: if I wanted to go on living, I had to find a bear.

A brilliant, funny and heartbreaking account of people in formerly Communist countries who are nostalgic for how they used to live.

For hundreds of years, Bulgarian Gypsies trained bears to dance, welcoming them into their families and taking them on the road to perform. In the early 2000s, after the fall of Communism, they were forced to release the bears into a wildlife refuge. But, even today, whenever the bears see a human, they still get up on their hind legs to dance.

In the tradition of Ryszard Kapuściński, award-winning Polish journalist Witold Szablowski tells remarkable stories of people throughout Eastern Europe and in Cuba who, like Bulgaria’s dancing bears, are now free but long for when they were not. He describes hitchhiking through Kosovo as it declares independence, arguing with the guides at the Stalin Museum, and sleeping in London’s Victoria Station alongside a homeless Polish woman. Dancing Bears is a fascinating portrait of social and economic upheaval, and a lesson in the challenges of freedom and the seductions of authoritarian rule.

This book is in two halves, the first of which tells of the last few Bulgarian Roma families to own dancing bears. Szablowski spent time talking with these families about how they kept and trained their bears, how they were fed and cared for. He also spoke with the Austrain Four Paws charity which was committed to rescuing the bears and now provides them with a safe home and the illusion of freedom. Having been captives for practically all their lives, none of the bears would survive absolute freedom in the wild. What is particularly saddening though is that some are so institutionalised that even the small semblance of liberty can be too much of cope with. Sometimes it seems as though those bears would rather return to the pain of nose rings and beatings but with the security of the life they knew. Learning how to fend for themselves is just too bewildering.

Szablowski noticed a similar trait in some human groups who had been ruled by communism for decades. He likens their experiences and nostalgia to that of the bears and, in the second half of the book, travels to various Eastern European countries to listen to people reminisce about the good life they no longer have. What was surprising for me was that these aren't people who did particularly well financially under communism, but those who, like the bears, felt a level of security and social responsibility that is now actively discouraged under the greedy capitalist system. Farms which once employed and fed whole communities now might only employ a half dozen men and the food is sold elsewhere for a profit. Towns that once thrived are now all but abandoned because the jobs are all in the cities.

It is fortunate that Szablowski has a good way of imparting humour and a keen eye for the absurd otherwise Dancing Bears could have been a very depressing book. Instead it is a fairly light read, but one with a deeper, thoughtful side. Although the extreme version of communism was not a pleasant system to be ruled by and I certainly don't advocate the return of animal torture for entertainment, is our continuing rush to extreme Western capitalism really the best way for our societies to live either? I could understand the longing of these people for a past that might not have actually existed in quite the way they remember, but that desire for sense of security and belonging is universal and very real. Unfortunately it is also easily played upon by men with 'wacky hairstyles' the world over to lead us into something that won't turn out to be what we thought we would get at all.

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by Shimmer Creek in
Ludlow, England

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  1. I think I would enjoy this one. Thanks for sharing Stephanie.

    1. It's different to my usual fare, but informative and entertaining :-)

  2. I grew up with a few exile Cubans friends and the tales from their families always made me so sad and I even got nightmares. Freedom is often underappreciated.

    1. I think it's often illusory too. Freedom must be a strangely abstract concept for those who can't afford to meet society's norms.

  3. It's fantastic that the author was able to tell such a story without it becoming depressing. This ounds like a really interesting read! Tori @ In Tori Lex

    1. It's something I'd never really stopped to think about before. This is a fascinating story and told in an entertaining way